The world waits for a new PREFAB SPROUT LP. So which one do they get? ALAN JACKSON traces the convoluted paths of Sprout album-making and meets Zorro The Fox. Picture: LAWRENCE WATSON.
Rock’s ruling monarch arrives by bus, bundled up inside the shapeless woollen sweater he normally wears in bed on the coldest winter nights. It’s a good disguise.
“Up from suede shoes to my baby blues… I’m the king of rock ‘n’ roll, completely…”
My eyes go straight to his feet, looking for clues. Two expanses of suede all right, but blonds not blue, and looking suspiciously like brand-spanking-new desert boots rather than anything Elvis might have worn. In fact, I’m not sure that the man in Kitchenware director Keith Armstrong’s front room is Paddy McAloon at all – I’ve studied the cover of ‘Steve McQueen‘ a million times and this cheerful long-haired imposter doesn’t look a bit like the manic-eyed motorcycle boy I’m familiar with.
But then, I’ve got my doubts, Paddy’s girlfriend Wendy Smith seems to accept the man in front of us as the real thing so it’s hardly my place to demur. I won’t be the only one to raise a quizzical eyebrow when the Sprouts’ third LP arrives in the record stores next month though. Diehard fans will be choking with surprise left, right and centre as the needle hits the groove of Side One, Track One and ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll‘ comes bouncing out…
“La la la-la-la Ia-/a-la la-la-la la… ”, gurgles baby-voiced Wendy cheerfully before Paddy sidles in and lays waste to a million jealously- guarded notions of bed-sit miserabilism. I’m suddenly reminded of a quote in one of the clutch of interviews he granted back in 1985 when ‘Steve McQueen‘ was first released. “You’ll never find Prefab Sprout doing songs with a title like ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll'”, he said. Right. This has to be a fake. Paddy McAloon (or whoever you really are) j’accuse.
“He-he-he, it was wicked of me to say that, wasn’t it,” he chortles delightedly. “You see, the thing was that I’d already written the song and I was just having a bit of a laugh. I won’t do that to you – promise. Let’s see. You’ll never catch Prefab Sprout doing a song with a title like ‘Zorro The Fox’. OK?”
He gives a big stage wink to signal another potential joke at a journalist’s expense. ‘Zorro The Fox’? We’ll come to that later. Meanwhile blood tests, fingerprinting and a careful scrutiny of his passport confirm that this is the real McCoy (well, the real McAloon actually but you know what I mean), and one only too happy to agree that the opening track of ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ will cause apoplexy in some quarters.
“I wrote the song — and the new single ‘Cars And Girls‘ — early in ’85, just after finishing work on ‘Steve McQueen‘. Both of them were done really quickly, a reaction in a way to the idea people have of my work being very precise and delicate. I thought, people are going to be surprised by this. How will they react to me having a bit of fun? Will they think it’s a bit like Julie Andrews taking her bra off in S.O.B.? Maybe they’ll react really strangely to it. .
Maybe they will. Certainly the two tracks that open the album show a new side to the Sprouts-confident, uptempo and not afraid to poke fun this way and that. Purchasers of the single, out this week, will also note the provocative use of a model Bruce Springsteen on the cover— matchstick arms and legs, a little guitar and a flaming head to boot.
“I had a vision,” explains Paddy grandly. “I was in the kitchen frying an egg and I thought, wouldn’t it be brilliant to have a certain person hinted at? It seemed really appropriate. He’s got all these ideas, all this passion, all this commitment, and his head’s on fire. He’s your true, committed, passionate rock star. Do I think his fans will be outraged? Who cares, who cares?”
‘Cars And Girls’ weaves Springsteen’s fondness for road imagery into a lament for missed opportunities and painfully-acquired wisdom, then bounces it across a sunny backing track that seems on initial hearings to be the very essence of American radio rock- a clever trick that shows Paddy’s lost none of his prized irony during the move to bigger recording budgets.
“I’m not actually picking on him, I’m just considering that certain way of looking at the world —the road as a metaphor for life. Do I like him? Am I criticising him? It’s a mixture of both. Although I like simple things, I don’t find his music very interesting – to me, I’ve heard Presley, heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, so I’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll as it can be. Lyrically he doesn’t offer anything new, yet at the same time you can rely on him. It’s like Mark Knopfler – they don’t cheat anyone, and I think that’s their appeal. In some ways I think they’re preferable to the wilfully avant-garde. It’s just that sometimes you’d rather have a bit of fun.”
Fun isn’t necessarily a quality we’re accustomed to looking for in Prefab Sprout’s work but Paddy claims to feel misrepresented by any reputation he might have as a singularly serious writer.
“I don’t think people understand my sense of humour sometimes,” he worries. “I laugh more times than I cry about things. I’m not po-faced. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song that isn’t playful somewhere along the line. I think my problem’s been in the execution.”
To help put things right, he says he’d go so far as to re-record — even partially re-write — what many of his fans would themselves feel to be a classic, 1984’s acclaimed debut album ‘Swoon’.
“No,” he maintains. “If you’re going to use rich language and sing in a stiff voice, like I did through lack of experience, you’re going to come a cropper. And on ’Swoon’ I came a cropper in a big way.”
The dissatisfaction lies in his own performance, not the production, and makes it impossible for him to consign the album to the past.
“I’m desperately unhappy with it,” he claims, cheerfully enough. “There’s a great, great record in there — I know I could put it right now- and the idea of redoing it is one of my pet projects. If I could, I’d go round all the record stores with a hat pulled down low over my face buying up all the remaining copies or, preferably, slipping new versions into the sleeves.”
Paddy’s assessment of ‘Steve McQueen’ is more generous, although even here he feels that the inclusion of two other songs, ‘Dublin’ and ‘Til The Cows Come Home’ (judged by the aforementioned Keith Armstrong to be the finest song ever written about the North-East) could have raised it to rock legend status.
“We could have had the ultimate killer album, a record beyond all other records,” he says wistfully. “Even so, I’m very happy with it. When I heard it after Thomas (Dolby, the album’s producer) finished the mixing, it was like the moment of truth. I had no idea what it was going to sound like— I’d let him pick all the songs.”
That’s not a position too many artists would want to find themselves in, it should be said, but Paddy is enthusiastic to the last about Dolby whom, he says, ranks alongside Jam and Lewis in the league of great producers.
“Joni Mitchell had a great phrase that she used about him, and which Thomas will probably kill me for remembering,” he allows when I voice reservations. “She said that he interior decorates you out of your own songs, and on a bad day I’d imagine that might be so. But I have to say, hand on heart, that he made my songs into little palaces.”
Sprout fans who secretly feel they might prefer to hear Paddy’s work in its undecorated state will no doubt bitterly regret the non-appearance of the mystery LP ‘Protest Songs’, recorded shortly after ‘Steve McQueen’ but in markedly different circumstances.
“I knew we’d made a great record, and I was sitting around thinking it would be out soon and what would be the best thing we could possibly do next. And I knew that the last thing people would ever expect would be for us to come up with another bunch of great songs really quickly. So we went into a local studio and did ‘Protest Songs’ very fast, very rough. But despite that it’s got some real gems on it.”
Gems that CBS, in its corporate wisdom, decided we would find too confusing to hear. “I wanted it to come out straight away but by this time ‘When Love Breaks Down’ was finally being a hit and I had to agree that I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity,” says Paddy. “At that point we were still trying to tell people who we were, and I wanted to be sure they heard ‘Steve McQueen’ before they heard ‘Protest Songs’.”
Time passed, and cold feet set in. The longer release was delayed, the more it would look like a fully-fledged follow-up rather than an interim statement.
“I’ll be honest— I wouldn’t put it out now as it stands,” he admits. “It wasn’t done with the care I’d normally give a record, and I have to admit my nerve’s gone a bit.” That’s frustrating for admirers of the McAloon songbook, as the two songs Paddy feels could have turned ‘Steve McQueen’ into a masterwork are among those included in the set. All is not lost though.
“CBS know they’re on to a good thing,” he says. “They know they’ve got a record that’s been made for next to nothing that a lot of people are going to be interested in, even if they are the real diehard fans. It’s not an embarrassment—OK, it’s not a CD-ish career move-type album, but they could still make a buck out of it.”
If ‘Protest Songs’ proved Prefab Sprout could move fast when the mood took them, it was back to a more meandering approach for ‘From Langley Park To Memphis‘. One song, ‘Hey Manhattan’, was recorded with Andy Richards as producer over a year ago. Four more were put together in London and Los Angeles in early ’87 with Dolby, and the remainder of the material was completed later on in the year with Jon Kelly.
“Well, there’s no point rushing – you’ve got to get it right, haven’t you?” justifies Paddy with a hint of a blush. “Hand on heart I think we’ve made a great record. I think the songs surpass anything on ‘Steve McQueen’, yet musically and lyrically they’re more accessible. That’s a deliberate move. I’ve realised that a good simple song is better than a half-successful complicated one.”
Oh for such confidence in your own ability, however justiﬁable. But then Paddy is the man who once expressed the quiet belief that he might well qualify as the best songwriter on this planet. “The ‘I’m Bigger Than God’ interviews?” he smiles. “Yeah, I know it looks terrible in print making claims like that for your writing, I know it looks pompous, but on my day I do have the best things. I don’t say I’m the best record maker, the best singer, the best musician. But oh, those songs…”
Those of us who would have suspected that this almighty talent for writing was, by near definition, content to show itself only occasionally will be surprised to learn that the McAloon pen has all but completed two more projects since ‘From Langley Park…’—a Christmas album (yes, really) and what would could loosely be described as the soundtrack for a planned film based on the moustachioed hero of children’s fiction, Zorro.
“The Christmas album is great- it’s called ‘Total Snow’,” says Paddy, denying repeatedly that this is a wind-up. “It’s basically a collection of new Christmas songs, some of them very traditional in feel and others trying to capture the wildness of the idea that somebody should be born in Israel in order to save everyone. It’s a gorgeous idea and yet a really sad one too.”
The intention is to have other artists sing the songs which, at this early stage, could be just a little too melancholic for comfort. “I think maybe I should try and write a few more jolly ones,” Paddy concedes. “I don’t want it to end up as Paddy McAloon gets moody about Christmas. ‘Christmas In Your Bed- Sit’? Oh no, that would be terrible.”
In typical Prefab fashion, we’re talking not next December but the one after for release. “I bet somebody else nicks the idea,” he grumbles. “Oh well, it wouldn’t matter if they did ‘cos mine would still be the one to have. It’ll probably be the ‘Protest Songs’ scenario all over again. I’ll be rushing into CBS saying ‘put out the Christmas album, put out the Christmas album’, and they’ll be saying, ‘Hang on, it looks as if ‘When Love Breaks Down’ is finally going to go Top 20. We don’t want any new stuff from you yet’…”
And if that sounds like an unlikely project, it’s got nothing on ‘Zorro The Fox’, which Paddy conceives of as an antidote to the current rash of movies seemingly designed to showcase appalling American rock soundtracks.
“I want it to be exciting and witty and unusual,” he says. “I see Zorro as this guy for whom it’s almost a character failing to be heroic. He can’t help it. He’s somebody who doesn’t have much joy in his life, other than the fact of being good at what he does, which is to be a hero. It’s quite a daft idea, isn’t it?”
What can you say to that, other than, ‘Why ‘Zorro The Fox’’?
“It’s just something that appeals to me, I don’t even know why. I think it maybe came about because I felt I needed some sort of mental scaffolding to start writing new songs. The music is very different from Prefab Sprout, very romantic, modern as hell. It’s given me a whole new lease of life.”
The intention is to release ‘Zorro’ as an album at the very least, but ideally to develop it into a film musical. “I’m tentative talking about it because I know people will laugh,” predicts Paddy. “But the thing is, I’m deadly serious about it. I’m aware that it could be completely, hopelessly-bad, but the idea just tickles me. I’d like to stress that there’s nothing here of your rock musician seeing film as a mature medium and pop as something he’s going to outgrow.”
By this point it’s beginning to strike me that being one of the three other members of Prefab Sprout could well be a frustrating, as well as part-time, occupation. Does the band really exist as anything more than a nominal vehicle for the myriad interests of Paddy McAloon?
“Well it’s true we’re not a band like most others,” he admits of brother Martin, girlfriend Wendy and fourth member Neil Conti. “It’s like a family business in a sense. It’s hard to explain how it works. Let’s take ‘Zorro The Fox’. I’d like it to be a Prefab Sprout record, but if it turns out that it’s not, that’s OK. The others will still be working on it with me. We don’t have that situation that exists in a lot of bands where everyone is fighting for their territory, fighting for some sort of credit.”
Hmmm. Well at least the others must be looking forward to touring, to show that they do have a genuine contribution to make to the overall game plan?
“Oh no, no tour, that’s my black spot,” says Paddy, shaking his head. “I want to spend this next year trying to write a great film score and I know that if I go on the road I’ll just end up writing in the same way as everyone else. Obviously CBS would like us to do something, even if it’s only the skimpiest of foreign tours to gee up their divisions abroad. But I can’t sacrifice what could be the best time of my life for writing just to go and gee up somebody who’s marketing us in Botswana. It might be nice, but I just can’t do it.”
Aren’t the others disappointed?
“They would like to go on the road, but as I’m the one who writes the songs . . Paddy casts about for the right expression.
As you’re the one who writes the songs it’s tough shit?
“Tough shit? Those are the two words I was looking to find,” he laughs. “Yes, I suppose it’s tough shit.”
At least Martin, Wendy and Neil can temper their disappointment with the knowledge that they have contributed to what must be one of the most carefully-conceived and poetic LPs since, oh, the last Prefab album. ‘From Langley Perk To Memphis’ is, even at its most playful, poppy moments, as smooth as junket. Yet Paddy’s quirky lyricism and bitter-sweet observations on life give bite to settings that, on first hearing at least, threaten to be so polished and perfect as to be toothless. We may smile even more broadly than is intended at the notion of Paddy McAloon as the king of rock’n’roll, but we’ll still find a lot here to cherish.
“I knew I wasn’t going to strike the right note coming here on the bus,” he grins with more humility than Bruce Springsteen could ever muster.